Montaigne Publishes His

Montaigne created a new genre of Western world literature when he published the first personal, or familiar, essays.

Summary of Event

Of the four major modern genres of Western literature—poetry, fiction, drama, essay—only the essay is a creation or invention of modern times. Poetry, fiction, and the drama are inherited from ancient Greece, but the literary essay, the personal or familiar essay, is the creation of the French Renaissance and of the gifted thinker, philosopher, and writer Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. Essays, The (Montaigne)
Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de
Gournay, Marie le Jars de
La Boétie,Étienne de
La Chassaigne, Françoise de
La Boétie, Étienne de
La Chassaigne, Françoise de
Gournay, Marie le Jars de
Montaigne, Michel Eyquem de

Montaigne was born Michel Eyquem at his father’s Château de Montaigne; being the eldest son he inherited the title Montaigne and the Château on his father’s death in 1568 and styled himself Montaigne thereafter. Like his father, he was counselor of the Bordeaux parlement (1557-1570), and he was elected twice as mayor of Bordeaux (1581 and 1583). Nevertheless, he spent much of his life in isolation, in reading, and in meditation in his tower library at his Château. The major result of this reading and meditation is Essais (1580-1595; The Essays, 1603).

Montaigne’s father reared young Montaigne with classical Latin as his native language and the classics as his teachers. He learned French as a “foreign” language. He was essentially a solitary. Montaigne, however, was devoted to his father, and he had one close friend who died young, Étienne de La Boétie, in whose honor he wrote the memorable essay “On Friendship.” He did not have a close relationship with his wife Françoise de La Chassaigne. It is known that his children, except for one daughter, died in infancy, and he was not close to the surviving daughter either. Toward the end of his life, however, he developed a close friendship with Marie le Jars de Gournay, his adoptive daughter, pupil, and later editor of the posthumous publication in 1595 of a complete edition of The Essays. He seems otherwise to have lived a lonely and not particularly happy life.

As a consequence of his solitary meditation, reading, and introspection, however, he came upon an appropriate vehicle for trying to understand himself and all humanity—a new literary technique and genre—the personal essay. It took him some five or six years of writing and rewriting to invent the essay genre as a vehicle to say what he wanted to say. The earliest essays, those written roughly between 1572 and 1574, are short and relatively impersonal. A major turning point is to be seen in the composition in 1576 of “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” his longest and most skeptical writing. After that, a self-portrait clearly becomes his central theme.

In 1580, the first edition of The Essays appeared, published by Montaigne at Bordeaux in two books. He continued rewriting and adding to the essays but mainly during 1582 when there was a second Bordeaux edition. A third edition also appeared in 1587 in Paris. In 1588, Montaigne published a fourth edition of The Essays in Paris, containing a completely new third book plus more than six hundred additions to books one and two. The essays in the third book are even longer and more personal than the earlier ones. This was the last edition Montaigne actually saw through publication. He continued, however, to revise and edit using one of his own copies of the 1588 edition, and in the year of his death, 1592, he was preparing a “final” edition for the press. This editing is in the form of Montaigne’s marginal additions to what is sometimes called the “Bordeaux copy” of 1588; further, this editing is extensive, being about one quarter of the total length of the whole work. Montaigne died on September 13, 1592. In 1593, a fifth edition appeared posthumously in Lyons; a sixth edition also appeared there in 1595.

Marie le Jars de Gournay incorporated Montaigne’s edited material into the first complete edition of The Essays, which also was published posthumously in 1595, this time in Paris. One would then consider this to be the seventh edition. (It should be noted that there are other legitimate ways of designating edition numbers, because, as usual, it is often arbitrary to distinguish between actual editions and printings or reprintings. The numbering of editions here is standard and conservative.) The Essays of Montaigne were first translated into English by John Florio and published in London in 1603 with the title The Essayes.

The French word essai has its root in the Latin exagium: to weigh. In sixteenth century French, essai meant attempt, practice, prelude, sample. The term essaier meant to experience, to expose, to feel, to make an attempt, to taste, to test, to undertake, to weigh. The English word assay in both its archaic (trial, attempt) and its current (try, attempt) meanings is close to the French meanings and suggests much about Montaigne’s methodology. His use of the word essais for his writings is more an indication of his technique than it is a name for a literary genre.

In the essays, Montaigne tried to look at all sides of a topic or question, positive as well as negative. After encountering his work, readers may not know exactly what something is, but they are aware of what it might be, what it could be, what it ought to be, what it is trying to be, or something in between. In other words, he created the essay as literature. It is not history, philosophy, religion, a social science, or science. It is literature. It is exploratory. It is as close to the combination of the thought, the emotion, and the feeling of total humanity as one can get.

The topics of the essays vary not only in subject but also in length and in treatment. Some are long, some are short. Some are lists, some are highly and intricately developed. Many have overlapping and interlinking topics of exploration. For example, in book 1 he explores, among other topics, sadness, idleness, fear, friendship, moderation, and solitude. In book 2, again among many others, he explores drunkenness, books, cruelty, virtue, anger, and war. In book 3, among others, he explores repentance, diversion, discussion, vanity, physiognomy, and experience. Through reading these and other of Montaigne’s essays, readers come to know him better than actual acquaintances and come to know themselves better than they could without his aid. Montaigne knows that the only thing one can really know is himself or herself. In his essays, he comes to know himself, and readers come to know themselves.


Montaigne created and set the standard for the personal informal essay, a form of writing not seen before Montaigne. Like Homer with fiction, Sappho with lyric poetry, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles with drama, Montaigne had invented and perfected what was to become one of the four literary genres of Western world literature. He and his essays are not likely to be surpassed. Throughout The Essays, Montaigne portrays himself as a very ordinary, simple, unimportant person. Ironically, he comes through as anything but ordinary, simple, or unimportant. He reveals the human soul in all its complexity within a very real and complicated body; he reveals the same about himself and about each reader who reads him.

Further Reading

  • Coleman, Dorothy Gabe. Montaigne’s “Essais.” London: Allen & Unwin, 1987. A study of how to read Montaigne, how to understand the intellectual, philosophical, and classical literary backgrounds, and how to follow Montaigne through the ages.
  • Friedrich, Hugo. Montaigne. Translated by Dawn Eng. Edited by Philippe Desan. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Although originally written in 1949, this work is still considered by many to be the most authoritative total study of Montaigne. It has stood the test of time.
  • Hartie, Ann. Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. This study of Montaigne’s work seeks to counter the perception that his achievements were primarily literary rather than philosophical. Argues for the philosophical originality and importance of his ideas. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Henry, Patrick, ed. Approaches to Teaching Montaigne’s “Essays.” Approaches to Teaching World Literature 48. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1994. Comprehensive information on editions, texts, and reference works plus twenty essays on various approaches to Montaigne and his essays.
  • Hoffman, George. Montaigne’s Career. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. This study of the relationship between politics and writing in the sixteenth century charts Montaigne’s various occupations and sources of income to determine the influence of financial and practical considerations on his writings and his thought. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Leschemelle, Pierre. Montaigne: Or, The Anguished Soul. Translated by William J. Beck. Currents in Comparative Romance Languages and Literatures 29. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. A psychological analysis of Montaigne through his own essays.
  • Levine, Alan. Sensual Philosophy: Toleration, Skepticism, and Montaigne’s Politics of the Self. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2001. Based on the presumption that until now practitioners of various disciplines (literary criticism, political science, philosophy, history) have each studied and appropriated only fragments of Montaigne’s work, this study aims to be the first to synthesize his model of the self, his attitudes toward Native Americans, his skepticism, and his arguments in favor of tolerance into a single comprehensive model of Montaigne’s thought showing how each piece relates to the whole. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • March, Dudley M. Montaigne Among the Moderns: Receptions of the “Essais.” Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, 1994. A study of the influence of the essays from the time of composition through such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Pater, and Virginia Woolf and up to the 1990’.
  • Montaigne, Michel de. The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Translated and edited by M. A. Screech. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press, 1991. One among many attempts to translate the essays into English adequately. Helpful introductions, annotations, and appendices.
  • O’Neill, John. Essaying Montaigne: A Study of the Renaissance Institution of Writing and Reading. 2d ed. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 2001. Examines Montaigne’s practice of writing, its cultural context, and his personal understanding of what it meant to write. Also discusses the reception of Montaigne’s work, both by his contemporaries and by successive generations up to the present. Includes bibliographic references and index.

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